Cold, flu, COVID-19 and RSV: How to identify the differing symptoms and stay safe

For those who get sick during the fall and winter, the diagnosis could be a toss-up.

With the threat of the common cold, flu, COVID-19 and RSV in the mix, it can be tricky to determine the culprit.

Fox News medical contributor Dr. Marc Siegel shared with Fox News Digital that among the four conditions, there is “very much [an] overlap” in symptoms.

COLD AND FLU SEASON IS COMING: KNOW THE WARNING SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS NOW

So how can you spot the difference between a cold, the flu, COVID and RSV? 

Here are a few indications.

There is “much overlap” among the four conditions, one doctor told Fox News Digital, speaking of the common cold, the flu, COVID-19 and RSV. (iStock)

Common cold

Caused by viruses, a cold is marked by typical symptoms such as a runny or stuffy nose, sore throat, cough, sneezing, nasal congestion, headache, slight body aches and a low-grade fever, according to Mayo Clinic.

HAVE A COLD OR FLU? HERE’S HOW TO KNOW IF YOU CAN STILL WORK OUT: ‘USE THE NECK CHECK’

Adults may catch a cold two or three times a year, while infants and young children can get them more often.

Most people recover from a cold in about a week, and medical care is generally unnecessary unless symptoms worsen.

girl blowing nose

The common cold is harmless, although it “might not feel that way,” according to Mayo Clinic. (iStock)

Colds are most frequently caused by rhinoviruses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

They are spread through respiratory droplets released by coughing and sneezing, or through personal contact such as shaking hands or hugging.

The best way to protect yourself from catching a cold is by washing your hands often and avoiding others who are infected, per the CDC.

Influenza (the flu)

Influenza symptoms may be similar to those of the common cold, but the repercussions could be more severe.

The flu is caused by influenza viruses that impact the nose, throat and sometimes the lungs, according to the CDC, and can cause mild to severe illness.

FLU PREVENTION TIPS FROM FLORIDA’S SURGEON GENERAL: A ‘DAY-TO-DAY’ HEALTHY LIFESTYLE IS KEY

In some cases, the flu can be deadly.

The virus has resulted in anywhere from 12,000 to 52,000 deaths annually in the years 2010 to 2020, per CDC data.

Flu symptoms are usually sudden, Siegel said — and can include fever, chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, fatigue, and sometimes vomiting and diarrhea. 

family in bed with the flu

The sudden onset of feeling unwell often differentiates the flu from the common cold. (iStock)

The CDC noted that it’s “impossible” for people to tell if they have the flu based on symptoms alone, which is why diagnosis requires testing by a medical professional, most commonly with rapid influenza diagnostic tests (RIDTs).

The flu is spread by the same respiratory droplets as a cold, and can also be transmitted by touching infected surfaces and then touching your face.

AFTER LOSING HER LEG TO THE FLU, VIRGINIA WOMAN URGES PEOPLE TO GET VACCINATED: ‘DON’T WASTE TIME’

People with the flu are most contagious within the first three to four days of being sick.

Children are most likely to come down with the flu, according to a 2018 study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases; but the CDC still considers the illness to be very common.

Flu and COVID-19 vaccine signage

The most effective way to avoid the flu, according to the CDC, is to get a flu vaccine every year, follow frequent handwashing protocols and maintain distance from sick people. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

The most effective way to avoid the flu, according to the CDC, is to get a flu vaccine every year, follow frequent handwashing protocol and maintain distance from sick people.

Coronavirus (COVID-19)

COVID-19 has all the same symptoms as cold and flu, including fever, chills, cough, body aches, sore throat, congestion, runny nose, fatigue and headache.

Siegel noted that some additional symptoms of COVID-19 are characterized by sore throat, loss of taste, brain fog and shortness of breath.

COVID-19 testing

One of the reasons for running rapid COVID tests on patients with these symptoms is to distinguish the virus from the others, said Dr. Siegel. (REUTERS/Andrew Kelly)

One of the reasons for running rapid COVID tests on patients with these symptoms is to distinguish the virus from the others, Siegel said.

COVID-19 can also be detected through more accurate PCR testing, which will deliver a result within three days. 

COVID-19, FLU AND RSV VACCINES ARE ALL AVAILABLE THIS FALL: SEE WHAT SOME DOCTORS RECOMMEND AND WHY

People should seek emergency medical attention if symptoms develop into breathing trouble, persistent chest pain or pressure, new confusion or an inability to stay awake, as well as pale, gray or blue-colored skin, lips or nail beds, according to the CDC.

Coronavirus prevention measures include staying up to date with vaccines, improving ventilation in indoor spaces, testing for COVID, staying home when symptoms arise, and avoiding contact with people who may be infected, the agency stated.

people in masks

Coronavirus prevention measures include staying up to date with vaccines, improving ventilation in indoor spaces, staying home when symptoms arise, and avoiding contact with people who may be infected, per the CDC. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

Other preventative measures include wearing masks or respirators, avoiding crowded areas and keeping distance from others.

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)

RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, can cause the same basic symptoms of runny nose, cough, sneezing and fever.

Other symptoms of the virus, such as wheezing and a decrease in appetite, could differentiate it from other conditions, according to the CDC.

RSV VACCINE SHORTAGE FOR BABIES: WHAT PARENTS NEED TO KNOW TO KEEP INFANTS SAFE

While infants are at the highest risk for RSV infection, they may have different symptoms, such as irritability, decreased activity and breathing difficulties.

Baby with stethoscope

Infants and older adults are most at risk for RSV, according to the CDC. (iStock)

As Siegel noted, RSV patients can become short of breath and may spike a “very high” fever, which could require an ER visit.

“It is particularly risky to the very young, where it clogs small airways, and the elderly, who lack the immune response to fight it off quickly,” he said.

CLICK HERE TO SIGN UP FOR OUR HEALTH NEWSLETTER

Infants and older adults are at risk of more severe infection, which can develop into other conditions like bronchiolitis and pneumonia, the CDC states.

Hospitalization may also be necessary for infants and older adults who experience dehydration or trouble breathing.

RSV vaccine

The CDC recommends that eligible patients get vaccinated against RSV. (iStock)

Most RSV infections will improve within one week, according to the CDC, and can be treated with over-the-counter medications and at-home care.

While there are subtle differences between RSV and other conditions, protocols for transmission and prevention remain mostly the same, including distancing from people with symptoms and being careful when touching foreign surfaces.

CLICK HERE TO GET THE FOX NEWS APP

Multiple RSV vaccines are available for all ages and are recommended by the CDC as prevention aids.

For more Health articles, visit www.foxnews.com/health.

Cristeen Gonzama

Cristeen Gonzales writes about health and medicine. She tends toward stories that reveal the on-the-ground impact of health policy, with a particular focus on the opioid epidemic, Covid-19 and abortion.

You may also like...